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1995 FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries: Background, Purpose, Content and Role

David J. Doulman[11]


This paper provides a review of the background to the development of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, its purpose, content and intended role in facilitating long-term, sustainable resources use in the fisheries sector. Following background information, the paper discusses the way in which the Code was elaborated. Its purpose and objectives are then considered. The structure of the Code is outlined and global, regional and national initiatives concerning implementation addressed. The conclusion of the paper makes note of the need to focus more intensively on fisheries management, and to address past shortcomings, if fisheries are to be better managed in future and if the global contribution of fisheries to food security is to be maintained, if not increased.


The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), in accordance with its fisheries mandate within the United Nations (UN) system, plays a pivotal role in monitoring and reporting on global developments in fisheries. In the early 1990s, as part of its so-called 'watch dog' reporting, FAO brought to the attention of the international community the poor, and in some cases, declining state of a number of the world's more important and valuable fisheries. At the same time, in its reporting, FAO highlighted the fundamental role played by fisheries and aquaculture in food security and social and economic well-being. FAO also documented some improvements that had taken place in fisheries management, including some national and regional initiatives that have been adopted to promote sustainable resource-use practice.[12]

In 1993 FAO published its revised special chapter of The State of Food and Agriculture 1992.[13] It has been noted by some commentators that this publication represented a milestone in FAO fisheries analysis. Significantly, the publication was prepared ten years after the conclusion of negotiations for the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982 Convention), and in the analysis presented it was possible to reflect on global changes in the fisheries sector in the decade following the international acceptance of extended jurisdiction.

At the conclusion of the negotiations for the 1982 Convention there was a widespread assumption, implicitly at least, that the formalization of the concept of extended jurisdiction in international law would lead to a substantial improvement in the way in which the world's fisheries resources were managed and utilized.[14] However, the FAO analysis, drawing together data and related fisheries information in a novel way, showed that the anticipated improvement in fisheries management had not been generally realized as a consequence of the "new-world order" in fisheries. Moreover, the FAO analysis provided, for the first time, global estimates of fish stocks that were considered to be fully exploited, over-exploited or in a state of recovery.[15] This analysis, widely quoted in the international fisheries press and literature, has become something akin to benchmark data. Since the publication of FAO's analysis, the Organization has incrementally refined, extended and modified the results as new information has become available.[16]

This 1991-92 FAO analysis concerning the state of world fisheries was undertaken against a background of preparations for the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). The lead-up to this Conference, and the very intensive programme of pre-Conference negotiations, served to promote broad international awareness and concern about the manner in which many of the world's natural resources were being used.

In May 1992, one month prior to UNCED, the International Conference on Responsible Fisheries was convened in Cancún, Mexico. The Conference was hosted by the Government of Mexico in collaboration with FAO. The Conference had its roots in the 1991 Nineteenth Session of the FAO Committee on Fisheries (COFI) which recommended, inter alia, that the concept of responsible fisheries be developed and that an instrument to this effect be elaborated.[17] The Mexican Conference adopted the Cancún Declaration, which provided input to the UNCED process and gave impetus, within FAO, to the elaboration of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries.

In combination, the 1991 Session of COFI, the Cancún Conference and UNCED led to the launching of three international and mutually consistent fisheries initiatives. Although somewhat different in focus and scope, each of the initiatives had similar overall goals: the long-term, sustainable use of fisheries. These initiatives involved the:

Whereas the 1995 UN Fish Stocks Agreement and the 1992 FAO Compliance Agreement focused on high seas fisheries, the Code of Conduct addresses all fisheries and aquaculture.

Reinforcing and underscoring the importance of these international initiatives was the Rome Consensus on World Fisheries,[20] adopted by the FAO Ministerial Conference on Fisheries in March 1995. Inter alia, the Consensus noted the need to take urgent action to address issues such as overfishing, the development of sustainable aquaculture and the rehabilitation of fish habitats. In addition, the Consensus urged governments and international organizations to take prompt action to effectively implement the relevant rules of international law on fisheries and related matters which were reflected in the 1982 Convention; to bring to a successful conclusion the UN Fish Stocks Conference; to complete the process for the elaboration of the FAO Code of Conduct; and for countries to ratify the FAO Compliance Agreement.


The concept of responsible fisheries and the possibility of elaborating guidelines or a code of practice for responsible fisheries which would take into account all the technical, socio-economic and environmental factors involved, as noted above, was first mooted by the 1991 Session of COFI within the context of its deliberations on matters relating to large-scale pelagic driftnet fishing.[21] In this connection, COFI recognized that FAO had an important role to play in promoting international understanding about the responsible conduct of fishing operations and it was in this way that the concept of, and the need for, a Code of Conduct was conceived.[22]

At the 1993 Twentieth Session of COFI, the Committee noted that the FAO Council had endorsed the request made in the 1992 Declaration of Cancún for FAO to elaborate, in consultation with relevant international organizations, a Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. COFI agreed that such a Code would be important for achieving sustainable fisheries development. On related issues, COFI expressed satisfaction that FAO would contribute in a technical and scientific capacity to the UN Fish Stocks Conference, and the Committee agreed that the negotiation of the FAO Compliance Agreement should be kept on a fast track, while reiterating that flagging issues would be among the issues to be covered by the Code.[23]

The scope and the process of elaboration of the Code was a major item for discussion at the 1995 Twenty-first Session of COFI. COFI stressed the importance of the Code as an instrument that could support the implementation of the 1982 Convention and the fisheries outcomes of UNCED. The Committee also recorded its appreciation for the sound progress that had been made in the various working groups established to elaborate the Code. COFI also noted that technical guidelines would be developed by FAO to support and facilitate the Code's implementation.[24]

The process of the elaboration of the Code of Conduct was largely achieved through the use of open-ended technical working groups. All of these working groups met at FAO Headquarters in Rome.[25] Open-ended groups were convened so as to encourage as wider participation as possible in the negotiation process. Recognising the financial difficulty that many developing countries encountered in participating in the work of these groups, FAO supported the participation of some countries at meetings with a view to maintaining a regional representation and balance.[26] Moreover, in the elaboration process close relations between FAO and a number of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were encouraged. Many of these NGOs made sustained and important technical contributions to the elaboration process. This participation and transparency was highly appreciated both by FAO Members and the international NGO community.

Following the negotiation of the Code, the FAO Conference unanimously adopted it in October 1995.[27] In so doing the Conference made a broad international call to all stakeholders in the fisheries sector, including both FAO and non-FAO Members, intergovernmental organizations and NGOs, industry and fishermen to collaborate in the fulfilment and implementation of the Code's objectives and principles.

At the 1997 Twenty-second Session of COFI, the Code was addressed as a substantive item. In considering this item the Committee focused, to a significant extent, on securing funding to support the implementation of the Code in developing countries and on monitoring and reporting on its implementation. With regard to these matters COFI agreed that progress reports should be presented to the Committee every session. These reports would address achievements and progress with implementation. Governments would be requested to provide information to FAO on progress with national implementation through the use of a self-assessment questionnaire to be developed by the Secretariat.[28] This information would then be incorporated into a consolidated report to the Committee.

In keeping with this request from COFI, detailed reports were provided to the Committee at the Twenty-third, the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Sessions in 1999, 2001 and 2003 respectively. The reports focussed on steps being taken by FAO Members, regional fishery bodies and NGOs in implementing the Code of Conduct. Constraints to implementation were also identified and possible solutions to those constraints proposed. These implementational reports, in addition to permitting FAO and the international community gauge the extent and scope of implementation, provide a basis for the international donor community to assess development assistance needs by region and to channel assistance more effectively to activities and areas identified by potential recipient countries.


The Code of Conduct takes cognisance of the state of world fisheries and aquaculture, and proposes actions towards implementing fundamental changes within the fisheries sector to encourage the more rational and sustainable utilization of fisheries and aquaculture. The rationale underlying the Code is the notion that structural adjustment within the fisheries sector is essential if long-term goals of sustainability are to be achieved. Moreover, the Code recognizes that while policy decisions concerning the changes aimed at achieving sustainability rest firmly with governments, the effective implementation of the Code requires wide stakeholder participation and cooperation (i.e. from fishermen, processors, national and international NGOs to consumers).

Article 2 of the Code summarizes its objectives. These are to:

These objectives underpin, and indeed provide the general framework for, the Code's General Principles in Article 6 and the ensuing substantive or thematic articles (Articles 7 to 12).


The Code of Conduct is a voluntary instrument. This means that it does not have to be formally accepted by governments in the same way as the 1995 UN Fish Stocks Agreement and the 1993 FAO Compliance Agreement. The Code's scope is broad and comprehensive. It prescribes principles and standards for the conservation and management of all fisheries, and addresses the capture, processing and trade in fish and fishery products, fishing operations, aquaculture, fisheries research and the integration of fisheries into coastal area management.

In total, the Code has 12 articles and two annexes. Articles 1 to 5 cover, respectively, the nature and scope of the Code, objectives, relationship with other international instruments, implementation, monitoring and updating, and the special requirements of developing countries. Significantly, in Article 4, COFI is designated as the body to monitor the implementation of the Code. Moreover, through its appropriate bodies, and taking account of reports to COFI concerning the Code's implementation, provision exists for FAO, through COFI, to revise the Code. This possibility ensures that the Code remains a living document, capable of being adapted and modified to meet new fisheries developments and situations as they evolve.

The substantive or thematic articles of the Code are found Articles 6 to 12. These articles address:

The Code's two annexes provide background to the origin and elaboration of the Code and the text of FAO Conference resolution 4/95 concerning the adoption of the Code.

Resolution 4/95 of the FAO Conference, recalling Article 5 of the Code, urged that the special requirements of developing countries be taken into account in implementing its provisions. The resolution also requested FAO to elaborate an inter-regional programme for external assistance for these countries.[29] The purpose of this programme would target the upgrading of developing countries' capabilities so that they would be better placed to meet their obligations under the Code.

International plans of action

Four international plans of action (IPOAs) have been concluded within the framework of the Code of Conduct. These IPOAs focus attention on specific issues that the international community has deemed to be of importance in achieving long term sustainability. Like the Code, the IPOAs are voluntary in nature. They address:

Unlike the Code, not all of the IPOAs are universally applicable. For example, countries that do not have longline fisheries are unlikely to have seabird and shark interaction problems. Furthermore, these interaction problems are not global in nature; longline fisheries in tropical areas are unlikely to interact with seabirds since such interactions are normally confined to temperate areas. Governments should therefore assess the applicability of the IPOAs and, as appropriate, take action to develop and implement national plans of action (NPAs), as called for in the relevant IPOAs, to address national needs.

The IPOAs focusing on the management of fishing capacity and IUU fishing have implications for most countries in both small-scale and industrial fisheries. Assessments are needed to determine the extent and gravity of capacity and IUU fishing problems and the development of NPAs. Each IPOA sets a target date for countries to implement their NPAs. These dates, plus the severity of the problems associated with fishing capacity and IUU fishing, should facilitate priorities for action in implementing the NPAs.

1993 FAO Compliance Agreement

The 1993 FAO Compliance Agreement is an integral component of the Code.[30] However, the Agreement has different legal status to that of the Code in that the Agreement is a legally binding international instrument.

The purpose of the Compliance Agreement is to provide an instrument for countries to take effective action, consistent with international law, to deter the reflagging of vessels by their nationals as a means of avoiding compliance with applicable conservation and management rules for fishing activities on the high seas. In its Preamble, the Agreement notes that the practice of flagging and reflagging fishing vessels as a means of avoiding compliance with international conservation and management measures for living marine resources, and the failure of flag States to fulfil their responsibilities with respect to fishing vessels entitled to fly their flag, are among the factors that seriously undermine the effectiveness of such measures.[31] Indeed, it is the failure of countries to fulfil these flag responsibilities that has led to the widespread practice of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. This type of fishing has been high on the international fisheries agenda over the past five years because of the effects it has on undermining the effective management of fish stocks.

In practice, the 1993 FAO Compliance Agreement seeks to ensure that there is effective flag State control over fishing vessels operating on the high seas. This would require, inter alia, that Parties to the Agreement maintain a register of vessels to fish on the high seas and that all vessels engaged in such fishing operations are authorized to do so. Moreover, the Agreement requires that certain records concerning the physical characteristics of the vessels and their ownership and operational details, be maintained by the Parties are part of their flag State responsibilities. Furthermore, Parties are obligated to exchange information maintained on their respective registers through FAO and other appropriate global, regional and subregional fisheries organizations.

Even before its entry into force some of the elements of the Compliance Agreement were already being adopted by countries and incorporated into their fisheries legislation when it was being revised and other policy changes implemented concerning national authorizations for vessels to fish on the high seas.


FAO has a responsibility to facilitate the implementation of the Code and, where possible and appropriate, to technically support national and regional initiatives towards this end. However, primary responsibility for the Code's implementation rests with governments since it involves difficult, and sometimes sensitive, national policy decisions. Obviously, FAO is not in a position undertake such decisions but it can provide technical advice to countries as to what might be the best decisions to take in their particular circumstances to implement the Code of Conduct.

FAO's global initiatives

FAO has a central role to promote the implementation of the Code. Supporting national and regional implementation initiatives is and important part of the work of the Fisheries Department. Many of these initiatives are related. Some of FAO's activities include:

Regional action

At the regional level, fishery bodies have an important role to play in facilitating the implementation of the Code. It is recognized that some aspects of the Code can be more effectively implemented in some areas and in some fisheries through collective regional action. Moreover, it is further recognized that in regions where there are shared fisheries and fleets or common management problems in non-shared fisheries, regional cooperation as expressed through the coordination of management policies and other forms of cooperation (e.g. sharing of training and research institutes and other forms of technical cooperation) can be best achieved through the programmes of RFBs. For these reasons FAO seeks to collaborate with regional fishery bodies to foster the Code's implementation.

National responsibility

With respect to the implementation of the Code at national level, governments are encouraged to work with all stakeholders to facilitate the necessary structural adjustment and change in the fisheries sector. In large-scale fisheries, industry will have a prominent role in implementing the Code; this role will essentially involve ensuring that industry compiles voluntarily with measures adopted by governments to facilitate the long-term, sustainable use of fisheries. Such compliance will reduce government enforcement costs in achieving sustainability goals. In contrast, in artisanal and small-scale fisheries, the fishing communities themselves (through community-based management) and possibly NGOs (given their grass-roots fisheries connections in many developing countries), will be expected to be closely involved in facilitating and supporting the implementation of the Code.


FAO, and indeed Article 4.4 of the Code, acknowledge that the implementation of the Code requires concerted and coherent action and cooperation by all stakeholders. However, rapid adjustment and change in fisheries, as a consequence of steps taken to implement the Code, are unlikely to result, nor indeed are they to be expected. Rather, progress towards implementation and the benefits generated from responsible policies and measures adopted by governments to facilitate sustainability are more likely to yield phased and incremental results.

A fundamental concept underlying the implementation of the Code is the assumption that governments want better managed and sustainable fisheries and that they are prepared to take politically unpopular and difficult decisions, in the short-term, as a means of attaining longer-term beneficial gains.[33] However, this notion is perhaps somewhat naive, since most governments have short planning and policy horizons. Under these constraints, governments seek to minimize social and economic disruption through their policy interventions, even when it is recognised that such intervention is necessary to achieve sustainable practices. For this reason, technical advice concerning fisheries management and the policy decisions taken by governments concerning management (e.g. the imposition of certain input and output controls) often fail to intermesh. This is also why the implementation of management measures, or the modification of existing management approaches, usually tends to yield incremental results unless a fishery is very seriously depleted or collapses.

Having regard for the practical difficulties associated with the sustainable management of fisheries it is none-the-less important to note the major contribution made by the sector to global food security. Indeed, in some communities and regions, and among some groups of countries (e.g. communities around large inland lakes and in small island developing States), fish constitutes, by a wide margin, the most significant source of animal protein for human consumption. In this connexion, one of the major challenges in fisheries management facing all countries is how to implement measures that will permit overexploited stocks to be rebuilt in a reasonable period of time and to concurrently ensure that optimally, underexploited or unexploited stocks do not become overfished. A fine balancing of policies and management measures is required to achieve such an objective. However, if globally successful these policies should enable the aggregate contribution of fish to food security to be maintained, if not increased.[34] The goals and principles of the Code of Conduct are intrinsically linked to this food security challenge.[35]


The poor state of many of the world's major fish stocks, ineffective national and regional management practices and the need to facilitate long-term sustainable fisheries led to the adoption of the Code in 1995. Briefly stated, its purpose is to facilitate structural adjustment and change in the fisheries sector to:

However, analyses by FAO and other organizations have demonstrated that many of the world's fish stocks are not subject to effective and coherent management. This situation, while not only having implications for the erosion of the resource base in the longer term also negatively impacts the current and future contribution of fisheries to food security.

In the post-UNCED period there has been heightened international attention concerning the need to implement sustainable practices in all fisheries. In an unprecedented way countries, both individually and in regional groupings, have been called upon to focus more intensively on the implementation on rational management measures. Certain shortcomings have been highlighted, including the lack of flag State responsibility, vessel reflagging to avoid legitimate fisheries conservation and management measures, a growing incidence IUU fishing and weak monitoring, control and surveillance of fleets. Countries through a range of national and international initiatives have been called upon to address these and other management deficiencies. To this end countries have been encouraged, inter alia, to:

Reaching agreement on the text of the Code of Conduct during the negotiation process was not always an easy task; the accommodation of different positions in a negotiation process requires good faith by all parties and a willingness to compromise to reach reasonable and practical outcomes. However, since 1995 the real challenge for countries is to devise appropriate policies and to implement measures to give effect to the Code that are inclusive in nature by involving all stakeholders. In essence, this challenge requires taking the general principles and provisions of the substantive articles of the Code and translating them into actions that will facilitate the changes required to yield long-term sustainable results.

[11] The author is Senior Fishery Liaison Officer, Fishery Policy and Planning Division, Fisheries Department. FAO. Rome. Italy.
[12] While FAO has continued to provide national technical assistance in fisheries to facilitate such improvements in management, a major component of the Organization's activities towards strengthening fisheries management in recent years has been directed at Members through the strengthening of regional fishery bodies. This focus on these bodies has been undertaken at the request of the FAO Committee on Fisheries.
[13] FAO. 1993. "Marine Fisheries and Law of the Sea: A Decade of Change". FAO Fisheries Circular No. 853. FAO. Rome. 66p.
[14] About 90 percent of commercial fisheries fall under national jurisdiction.
[15] This analysis was based on data for the late 1980s. However, given the changes that are believed to have taken place in some fisheries as a consequence of management initiatives, it would be prudent to undertake new analysis using a similar methodology of more recent fisheries data, using the previous results as a benchmark, to determine the changes that have in fact occurred.
[16] See for example, FAO. 1995. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture;, and FAO. Rome. 57p. FAO. 1997. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture. FAO. Rome. 125p.
[17] This Session of COFI called for the development of new concepts which would lead to responsible, sustained fisheries.
[18] The significance of the Agreement was that it consolidated certain fisheries provisions of the 1982 Convention. In particular, the Agreement elaborated, within the context of the 1982 Convention, aspects concerning the more effective conservation and management of straddling fish stocks and highly migratory fish stocks. Moreover, the Agreement was significant in that it provided, for the first time, concrete and innovative provisions for the coordinated management of stocks occurring in zones of national jurisdiction and on the high seas, and which are the target resources for many of the world's most important and valuable commercial fisheries. However, to implement fully the Agreement there would have to be a high degree of international cooperation between coastal States and high seas fishing nations on a range of fundamental technical issues. The 1995 UN Fish Stocks Agreement entered into force on 11 December 2001.
[19] The 1993 FAO Compliance Agreement entered into force on 24 April 2003.
[20] FAO. 1995. Rome Consensus on World Fisheries. FAO. Rome. 4p.
[21] FAO. 1991. FAO Fisheries Report No. 459. 'Report of the Nineteenth Session of the Committee on Fisheries'. FAO. Rome. 59p.
[22] Moreover, within the Committee there was wide support for FAO to convene an ad hoc technical consultation on high seas fishing prior to the 1993 Session of COFI, while noting that FAO was cooperating with the United Nations Office for Ocean Affairs and Law of the Sea (UNOALOS) on an expert meeting to be held in New York in July 1991 concerning the Implementation of the Legal Regime for High Seas Fisheries under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The FAO consultation on high seas fishing was subsequently held in Rome in September 1992.
[23] FAO. 1993. FAO Fisheries Report No. 488. 'Report of the Twentieth Session of the Committee on Fisheries'. FAO. Rome. 77p.
[24] FAO. 1995. FAO Fisheries Report No. 524. 'Report of the Twenty-first Session of the Committee on Fisheries'. FAO. Rome. 61p.
[25] While all the working groups were held at FAO Headquarters in Rome, FAO did avail itself of the opportunity to convene briefing sessions for countries and non-governmental organizations in New York at UN Headquarters when Sessions of the UN Fish Stocks Conference were in progress.
[26] During the negotiation process, specific local, national, sub-regional and global issues were diluted, or perhaps even avoided in the negotiation process, with a view to finding acceptable global compromises, and ultimately consensus, on a wide range of difficult and controversial issues. Therefore, when considering the implementation of the Code, which must be geared to meet particular national circumstances and requirements, adaptation is likely to be needed in many instances. However, it must be stressed that such adaptations should not violate the letter or spirit of the Code.
[27] The Conference resolution adopting the Code also referred to a number of other important international fisheries agreements and initiatives, including the 1982 Convention, the 1992 Declaration of Cancún, the 1992 Rio Declaration and Agenda 21, the 1993 Compliance Agreement, the 1995 Fish Stocks Agreement, and the 1995 Rome Consensus on World Fisheries. Article 3 of the Code requires that it be interpreted and applied in a manner consistent with these instruments, all of which seek to achieve rational and sustainable fisheries.
[28] FAO. 1997. FAO Fisheries Report No. 562. 'Report of the Twenty-second Session of the Committee on Fisheries'. FAO. Rome. 32p. The questionnaire has been pre-tested at Session of FAO's regional fishery bodies prior to it being distributed to Members for completion. The information provided to FAO by countries will form the basis for reporting to COFI.
[29] This request was met through FAO elaborating the Interregional Programme of Assistance to Developing countries for the Implementation of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. Parts of this Programme are being implemented by FAO's FISHCODE.
[30] See Preamble to the Agreement.
[31] The articles of the Agreement cover definitions, application, flag State responsibility, records of fishing vessels, international cooperation, exchange of information, cooperation with developing countries, non-parties, settlement of disputes, acceptance, entry into force, reservations, amendments, withdrawal, duties of the depository and authentic texts.
[32] In addition to the five official FAO languages, the Code is available in about 40 languages in total.
[33] It should be recognized that decisions concerning fisheries management are inherently political and socio-economically difficult. The bottom line in fisheries management is that the exclusion principle must be applied (i.e., not all those persons who desire to fish can be accommodated in a fishery because of physical resource constraints) and in any activity where exclusion is necessary, the activity associated with it assumes a high political profile. This problem, however, must be addressed if fisheries governance, generally, is to be improved.
[34] Linked to the objective of maintaining/increasing the contribution of fish to food security is the need to consider access to fish by the poorest segments of the population. A related is the issue concerns the proportion of fish fit for human consumption actually going directly to human consumption as opposed to other purposes (e.g. the production of fishmeal to support the production of farmed products for the upper end of the market). While the production of high value products maybe important economically, such products may not make a substantial contribution to food security for those who are most in need and vulnerable to food insecurity.
[35] The Kyoto Declaration and Plan of Action, adopted by the International Conference on the Sustainable Contribution of Fisheries to Food Security (Kyoto, Japan, 4-9 December 1995) refers to the need to effectively apply the Code of Conduct in the interests of maintaining the contribution of fisheries to food security. Moreover, the Rome Declaration on World Food Security and the World Food Summit Plan of Action, adopted at the World Food Summit (Rome, Italy, 13-17 November 1996) calls for the early implementation of the Code to address responsible and sustainable utilization and conservation of fisheries resources in order to optimise the long-term sustainable contribution of fisheries to food security.

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